Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Writing Women, Writing Men: What’s the difference?

Women’s fiction is a broad category. There’s “book club fiction,” with the literary crossover. There’s chick lit. There’s romance. Pretty much any novel that features female protagonists will acquire the label.

Men’s fiction? Not so much. As a label, it doesn’t exist.

My novel that comes out in September will fall in the category of women’s fiction, of the book club/literary crossover variety. On one hand, this pleases me. It’s the sort of book I like to read. Among my favorite authors are Willa Cather, Emily Bronte, Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, Jayne Anne Phillips, Kim Barnes, Annie Proulx, and Marilynne Robinson. While I read and admire many male authors, I especially aspire to write as these women do, with a brilliance of atmosphere, internalized tension, and haunting language, constructing narratives driven more by character than by plot, and with a keen reliance on place.

But as one of my writer friends pointed out, there’s a downside to the label. Based on her experience with her debut novel, she warns that if your work is labeled women’s fiction, it won’t be taken as seriously by reviewers and media outlets as a book that’s outside that category.

Another writer friend, a man, told me he’s not a big believer in gender differences among readers. “A good story should hit universal human notes, not male or female notes,” he said, adding that he was proud that his stories, published in periodicals like Gray’s Sporting Journal aimed primarily at men, had found welcome readers among his female agents and editors. He said he sometimes worried that writers both male and female took shortcuts by playing the gender card.

I agree that good stories should transcend gender, and that playing the gender card can in many instances be bad form. But—and you may call this playing the gender card if you like—from the perspective of a female writer, gender differences in readers are very much real. There's lots of good hard evidence to this effect, from third graders all the way up to the most elite in the New York publishing industry. In grade school, girls will read "boy books," but boys won't read "girl books," the distinction between boy and girl books being defined in the minds of young readers primarily by the gender of the protagonist. And I doubt that anything branded "women's fiction" in the grown-up world of books will find many men among its readers, even though there are plenty of male agents and editors among those who acquire these titles.

The larger discussion involves how few men read novels at all, and how disproportionately women writers are represented within traditional publishing. As NPR reported in “Why women read more than men,” only 20 percent of the readers of fiction are men. Book groups and literary blogs, the piece noted, are made up almost completely of women.

Psychologists posit that women have a greater “emotional range” than men, and therefore more empathy, which makes them more prone to liking fiction. The explanation for this may lie right behind our eyebrows, where our “mirror neurons” are activated by the experiences of others. It appears that women may have more of these neurons then men. Plus from an early age, girls are more verbal and don’t mind sitting for longer periods of time while engaged in a book.

The gender disparity spills over into whose work gets published and reviewed. For proof, take a quick look at “The Count” done by VIDA, an organization that probes the critical perceptions of writing by women. Given these numbers, maybe the category of Women’s Fiction has an upside. It’s at least one way to have a “room of one’s own.”